(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.